When I finished CTA I always thought I would write two more installments, one about the Blythe, Meredith and Ford experiences in the First World War, and the other about the aftermath when Rilla opens the door to Ken Ford.
More than a year later I know that the aftermath is what I most want to write about. I did toy with the idea of writing it as a story by Anne Blythe, but the thought of writing in a new voice was a challenge I couldn't resist. In some ways I'm not writing a strict sequel to CTA but I hope it offers something new. It's my very first 'off the page/ what happened next' story, and it's told by Una Meredith.
With love and gratitude to L.M.M. ~ everything is hers, only this idea is mine
MAKE DO AND MEND
The characters are ~
Gilbert, the local doctor of Glen St Mary
Anne, his talented, audacious wife
Jem, their eldest son, who has returned to the Front and is about to return to Medical School. He is married to Faith Meredith
Nan, their eldest twin daughter, who worked for the Red Cross while finishing her B.A. in Kingsport. She is in love with Faith's brother, Jerry
Di, Nan's twin, who also worked for the Kingsport Red Cross while she completed her B.A and is hoping to go to Medical School.
Shirley, their youngest son, who was a pilot during the war, and returns with a War Bride.
Rilla, their youngest daughter. She stayed home during the war and fostered a War Baby. She is marrying Kenneth Ford.
John, the local Reverend of Glen St Mary parish
Rosemary, his second wife and mother to Bruce (who died in 1919)
Jerry, John's eldest son, who was studying theology before the war, and was in love with Nan Blythe
Faith, John's eldest daughter, who served as a VAD in England, and is married to Jem Blythe
Una, John's youngest daughter, who stayed home during the war, and was secretly in love with Walter Blythe. (Walter died in 1916.)
Carl, John's youngest son, who lost an eye in the war. He wants to be a scientist, and has feelings for Rilla Blythe
Owen, a internationally famous author, who lives in Toronto
Leslie, his gorgeous no-nonsense wife
Ken, their son, who completed his BA before serving as an Officer in the war. He is marrying Rilla Blythe
Persis, their daughter, who is starting a Fashion House
Other characters are ~
Susan Baker, the housekeeper at the Blythe's home of Ingleside
Miss Cornelia, widow of Marshall Elliot and foster mother to Mary Vance
Merritt Pugh, a Londoner who served with the Quakers during the war, and is Shirley Blythe's War Bride
Dr Jocelyn Eyre, a new doctor at Glen St Mary
Frede Murtagh, her housekeeper
Gilbert O'Ryan, an old student of Di Blythe's when she taught at the Over Harbour school, and is currently running a dairy farm
Keir Garnett, a lodger who comes to stay at the Blythe's home of Ingleside
When I found out my little brother died the first thing I said was, "I cut my hair for nothing."
Dr Blythe put his hand on my face and smoothed my brow with his thumb. He didn't tell me I was babbling or that it was the fever talking. He might have if he was married to someone else. But he is married to Anne Blythe which means he has a high regard for the peculiar.
"This was for Bruce?" he asked, gently. I felt his hand on my neck where the hair had run short.
My cheeks went hot because Dr Blythe is an Elder in our church and bargaining with God is a thing never done, especially by a Minister's daughter. He remained silent, which was something he hadn't learned from his wife. Mrs Blythe would certainly ask me about it – and probably guess. "
"When he was ill, when he was... very sick, I said to God if he survived I would cut off all my hair."
It wasn't much of a bargain, but then I haven't much to give. There is nothing very pretty or particular about me. I'm the pale, thin sort, neither tall nor short, with largish, blueish eyes and smallish, even teeth. My mouth has a habit of falling open giving the impression I have something to say. But I usually don't and have given up trying. Because it invariably begins with "Um", and as my name is Una Meredith and my initials spell U.M. I soon learned not to encourage the nickname.
People say my hair is the most striking thing about me. It's black as tar and so thick I could leave it in rags for a week and a curl would never take. If I wasn't being called Little Um at school then it was Nag's Tail. At home my brother, Jerry, calls me U – for no particular reason, he shrinks everybody's name. My sister, Faith, calls me Luna-Moon, but for good reason, she says; because I have a way of staring into space and forgetting to blink. Once upon a time there was a boy who called me Moonlight. But boys like that are the sort to die young, and though Walter Blythe was exceptional in every way, even he could find no way to exceed that rule.
My littlest brother is also a rare sort – was also a rare sort. He was the one who gave me the idea to negotiate with God. In the last year of the war when Faith's sweetheart was listed wounded and missing, Bruce took it into his head to offer up his kitten so that Jem's life might be spared. He never said a word about it, instead we found him sobbing in the garden, his beloved Stripey in his arms soaking the front of his shirt. I must have been delirious to think that hacking my hair with the dressmaking shears might have saved him. Instead I woke up to a clipped head and the news that while I had survived the Spanish Flu my beloved brother had not.
"I thought that – Bruce had recovered." His name stuck in my throat like a fish hook.
"There was a moment," the doctor said, "when we thought he'd pull through. But it only lasted an hour or two. Do you remember him calling for you?"
I did. His little voice could just be heard above the sound of the shears, the six inch blades making a slow metallic scrape that both frightened and satisfied. I blew lengths of hair off my nose and called out, "I'm coming, Bruce! I'm coming!" with a lightness I hadn't felt since my last letter from Walter. Then I woke up to Walter's father smiling down at me like I had just won a First in some famously difficult exam.
My father peered around the doorway, rubbing his head as though he never knew he had hair. Before the war it was thick and black like Jerry's. Now even Jerry's isn't like Jerry's. When he returned from the Front his hair had gone completely white.
Another doctor would have driven my visitor from my room and spoken in serious tones about the patient not being disturbed. Dr Blythe leaped from my bed – I was almost bounced out of it – wrapped his arm around my father and squeezed his shoulder tight.
"She's good as gold, John. Lungs clear, no fever. You have eight weeks to fatten her up in time for Rilla's wedding!"
I peered out the window to see the sun shine green through the ivy leaves. "Eight weeks?" I croaked. "Rilla's set to marry at Christmas. How long have I been ill?"
The two men looked at each other and then at the floor.
"Shall we let the women answer that?" said Dr Blythe, clapping my father hard on the back. "As for you, Miss Meredith, I can't say I expect to be a fan of these bobs you women are in a craze for, but I couldn't leave without telling you that a girl never suited it more." He bent over my bed, and his eyes, though hazel, looked just like Walter's grey ones. "Nothing is ever for nothing," he said. But I knew what he meant was: 'Bless you for living, Una Meredith.'
After that my bedroom became a train station. There was only one little visitor who never stopped by. I kept listening out for his footsteps skipping towards my room...
Then I'd remember.
We say that a lot now, Rilla and I. She is here most days, usually with her mother, though I never see much of her. Mrs Blythe spends most of her time with Rosemary, who has been mother to me since I was ten. But being mother to someone isn't be the same as being mother of someone. Bruce was her son, and Father's, and now he is gone and there are no other little children for her to hold onto, only her husband's battle-scarred, grown up brood.
"Between my eye and Jerry's back and your hair... and Faith," said Carl, scoffing down a square of fudge. It was a batch of Susan Baker's, and when she arrived with it this morning I heard her bark at Dr Blythe, "Sugar ration or no, if Una Meredith wants fattening up for Rilla's big day, then fattened she shall be!"
"What's Faith got up to now?" I said.
I had almost forgotten what it was like to share a room with her. When she first left for Redmond I would always make sure to sleep on my side of the bed and never let so much as a strand of hair trespass on hers – in those days it came down past my drawers. Four years later, she is finishing out her last months as a VAD in Dover and I am sprawling in the valley of our mattress like an overindulged cat.
Carl sighed – he sighed a lot since coming home – and pushed one finger under the patch on his left eye, rubbing it carefully.
"I'd tell you, Una, but I can't face the 'why did you do that fors?' I'm bound to get if I do. All this secrecy. It's daft! This is 1919 not the Dark Ages."
Before he could say more Rilla appeared, balancing small cups of cocoa on a tray. I found myself caught up in one of those silent conversations that make me want to study the ceiling as Rilla shoved a cup into Carl's hand.
"I can't leave you up here for five minutes," she said to him, then gave me her best Ken Ford wink.
"I'm winking too, Una, only you can't tell because it's my left eye."
Rilla glared at Carl, and the two of them began talking without words again. I marvelled at the eloquence of my brother's one blue eye, wishing there was a way for me to ask the next question without saying it aloud.
"Is this about the baby?"
Rilla turned sharply. "What baby?" she said.
"Which baby?" said Carl.
"I know about Faith," I said, quietly. "Sitting up here day after day, you hear all sorts of things. Especially in this house."
We Merediths live at the old stone Manse because Father is the Minister of Glen St Mary Presbyterian Church. It's three stories tall not counting the attics, with an immense oak staircase that rises like a spine through a wide and echoing hall. It must have been imposing in its day, but like Miss Havisham those frills and furbelows are now rotting, stained and worn. Faith says the ivy is the only thing keeping our house up. Faith is very fond of the ivy. When she and Jem were courting in those blue sky days before the war, she used its tendrils as a ladder in order to slip away at night. Nobody knew what she got up to except me. But I didn't count. I think because she relied on me to do all the worrying for her.
Rilla looked at me curiously. Carl looked at me, bored. He had finished his cocoa and was digging his finger into the bittersweet slurry that was always left behind in Rilla's cups of cocoa. The youngest Miss Blythe never cared to learn about how to make cocoa properly. She never used to care for anything except her own tragedies. Like Faith, she had been cursed with great beauty, which made others assume she was immune to life's hurts, and made Rilla determined to treat the slightest set back as though it was a catastrophe. While I loved her, I couldn't quite comprehend her. But then I don't look like a posy of dewy roses when I cry. I look like the crumpled waxy paper they were wrapped in.
Rilla stood up and began straightening the old lace at the window. There is still a hole at the bottom where Faith caught hold of it after losing her balance when she clambered over the sill. Our cocoas had gone cold. I wondered if they should be returned to the kitchen to be heated up again, and Rilla said:
"So what do you think – about Faith?"
"You haven't told me I'm right yet," I said.
"Are you ever wrong?" she replied and sat on the bed with a bounce to equal her father's.
Rilla shared his eye colour too. All the Blythes have the kind of eyes that dare to stare just a fraction long. But Walter was the only one in his family to have such black hair. Rilla has glossy chestnut curls that frames her face like an angel no matter what style she experimented with. This morning it was coiled about her ears, her pink lobes pierced with the tourmaline drops that Walter had sent her from France. Their mother has some too, though they are bigger and turquoise, and like Rilla she was never seen without them.
"I'm often wrong," I said, "this just made the most sense. Being bedridden was reason enough for me not to go to Bruce's funeral, but no one could ever explain to me why Jem had to miss it, and go all the way back to England when he had only just come home."
Gradually I had pieced together a definitive answer. In May, Faith had to give up her work with the VAD and her place at the hostel in Dover. She might have simply booked a berth on the next steamer home, but that would mean arriving in the Glen with a suspicious bump and no wedding band. There was nothing for it but to call Jem back. Though Faith's letters to me said nothing of this. They were filled with warnings of the wallop I would receive if I dared to scare her like that again.
Doubtless you have worn your little fingers to their little bones, but did you have to take the Flu in order to get a bit of rest?
Her last letter was postmarked Crabble not Buckland. My dauntless sister must have found another place to live.
"So now you know," Carl said. He shifted himself from my bed the moment Rilla sat on it, and began flicking through one of the books Mrs Blythe had lent me. "This used to be Walt's," he said. "You can tell by the writing in the margins."
Rilla and I fell upon it.
"What does that say, do you think?" Rilla said, glancing at me sideways. "Weren't his letters a chore to work out? I even asked Ken to look over one or two to see if he could make out the words any better than I could."
Carl closed the book on our fingers and walked to the door. "You up for a rematch tonight, little elf?"
"That's one book I have been reading," I said, of the copy of Art of Chess that was hiding somewhere in my bedclothes.
"Then I'll leave you two to discuss babies," Carl said, ducking out the door.
Rilla threw Faith's pillow at it. "Ooh, he's like Jerry in concentrated form!" She lay down next to me and leaned on her arm. "How is he anyway? We never see him at Ingleside and Nan's been home for a week."
"We hardly see him either. His back hurts him a great deal more than he lets on. He only ever sits in a chair or gets up from one when he thinks no one is looking."
"But you're always looking, aren't you, Una. Nothing gets passed you."
I felt like a snoop when she said it like that. One of those women who strut to the Manse first thing every morning to let Father know who needed to be prayed for that week. When I think of what Faith got up to under their watch. Some nights Jem's kisses would steam off her like wet socks in front the fire. Our room was often so thick with it I would slink into Bruce's bed.
Rilla reached for Walter's book and flipped through it absently. She has lovely long fingers and if I envied her anything I envied her that. She can span an octave with the grace of a lark's wing. When I'm at the piano I always think of frogs, though I don't remember who put that image in my head, me or Carl.
Carl's last word sat heavy in my room, as elephantine as could be.
"You never drank your cocoa, Rilla –"
"What of it?"
"And every visitor I get up here always eats more than they bring – except you."
Rilla picked up a square of fudge. "Susan must have used our entire week's ration to make this."
"In that case you're entitled to a fair share."
She screwed up her face and shook her head.
"Am I going to have to hear it in snatches through a wall, or are you going to tell me why you're getting married in six weeks instead of six months?" I reached for her hand and squeezed it gently. I didn't know how to say the next bit, and the next thing I knew it was said. "Faith's not the only one who's expecting, is she?"
Rilla rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling. There's a lovely crack that runs across it that follows almost the exact same course of the St Mary river.
"It doesn't matter if I am or I'm not. I'm happy, Una, so very happy! I love Ken, love him as I've never loved another in my life, and that's all that's all that matters. Not great big weddings!"
I looked past her shoulder to the curled up picture Faith had pinned to the wall a lifetime ago. A colour illustration of a white satin gown that Rilla never failed to adore whenever she was in my room: The Headless Saint of Hopeful Brides. A great big wedding had once been very important to Rilla Blythe, and what spare time she had was usually spent poring over bridal catalogs; one hand flipping the pages and the other running a rainbowy opal ring over her lips.
She wanted to have six bridesmaids, Ken wanted her to wear snowdrops in her hair, which meant they'd have to wait till winter. I suspected the flower choice was Ken's way of appeasing family opinion that it was happening far too quickly. "Quickly," Rilla would scoff, "we've been engaged since 1915!"
I pulled my pillow away and placed my head by hers. The tourmaline stone was cold against my cheek.
"What does Ken say about it?" I hadn't seen Ken beyond a, "Hey there kiddo, nice to see you decided to stick around," last week. I think it's the most he's ever said to me.
"Whatever makes me happy makes him happy, that's what Ken says. Oh, I know what you're thinking, that I made a ruinous mistake. But I'm not sorry, Una. I'm not. I love him – oh I love him so stupidly it's not real. I feel like I'm in a dream. That tomorrow I will wake to more endless waiting, that a call will come long-distance from Toronto and I'll discover he's been killed, that he's missing, that he's mutilated beyond recognition and never wants to see me again. If only you knew how it felt like when – someone – you loved came back to you – wanted to marry you – wanted you!"
She says someone because she can't say Walter. She never would. Walter wasn't the sort to hurl himself at a girl.
Ken Ford on the other hand... Rilla told me he'd kissed her good and proper when he came here on leave before going to the Front. He'd come for tea and a catch up, Rilla was hoping for more but she wasn't sure how he felt about her. She's not oblivious to her looks like her sister, Nan, but neither does she count on them to get her what she wants. When people call her the Blythe beauty she considers it a consolation prize.
She brought my hand to her stomach which was as flat as my own. I thought about my sister in England and the girl next to me, and the weddings they were supposed to have. Grand and golden occasions that would light up our little paths like a string of lanterns in a dark garden. There would be none of that now. Faith would be marrying Jem in a Registry Office in Southampton. Rilla and Ken would have a discreet ceremony at the Lighthouse. I wanted to be happy for them. Instead I had that September feeling, when I look up at the sky after three months of rain and finally hadve to admit to myself that summer isn't coming.
I wondered who, if anyone, would be the one to bring it back.
*Spanish Flu refers to the Influenza epidemic of 1918-19, 40 million people died worldwide (38 million soldiers and civilians died in WW1)
*VAD is the Voluntary Aid Detachment.
Thank you for reading, let me know what you think :o)